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New Left Review I/82, November-December 1973

Ralph Miliband

Poulantzas and the Capitalist State

One or two preliminary remarks about this review-article may be in order. In New Left Review 58 (November-December 1969), Nicos Poulantzas wrote a very stimulating and generous review of my book The State in Capitalist Society; and in the following issue of nlr, I took up some of his comments and tried to meet some of his criticisms. This exchange attracted a good deal of attention, both in this country and elsewhere: obviously, and whether adequately or not, we had touched on questions concerning the state which Marxists and others felt to be important. I thought that the publication in English of Poulantzas’s own book on the state [1] Nicos Poulantzas, Political Power and Social Classes (NLB and Sheed and Ward), pp. 357, £5·75. (it first appeared in French in 1968) would provide an opportunity to continue with the discussion that was then started, and to probe further some of the questions which were then raised. Unfortunately, the attempt to do this must, so far as I am concerned, be made in a much more critical vein than I had expected. The reason for this is that on re-reading the book in English five years after reading it in the original, I am very much more struck by its weaknesses than by its strengths. This is not a matter of poor translation: a random check suggests that the team of translators which was required for the task struggled valiantly and not unsuccessfully with an exceedingly difficult French text. It is a pity that the book is so obscurely written for any reader who has not become familiar through painful initiation with the particular linguistic code and mode of exposition of the Althusserian school to which Poulantzas relates. But too much ought not to be made of this: serious Marxist work on the state and on political theory in general is still sufficiently uncommon to make poor exposition a secondary defect—though the sooner it is remedied, the more likely it is that a Marxist tradition of political analysis will now be encouraged to take root.

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